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Breaking down burnout: 3 warning signs and 3 coping strategies

Here’s how to spot the effects of cumulative workplace stress and how to manage it for better mental and physical health

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The telltale sign of burnout is a diminished ability to engage in your work, your relationships or other activities as you normally would. Take steps to counteract the daily stressors in your life and reach out for help when you feel overwhelmed.


Sponsored by Bound Tree Medical

By EMS1 BrandFocus Staff

Everyone deals with stress on a daily basis, but EMS providers and other first responders face more intense situations than most. After all, nobody calls 911 because they’re having a good day.

Common frustrations in EMS include long hours, low pay, people misusing EMS and lack of support from management. Some stressors of the job can have a more negative and lasting impact than others. Even seemingly small daily hassles can grind away at a person, and together, these stressors eventually impact physical health and emotional well-being.

These individual frustrations – and more traumatic events like losing a patient – add up and create cumulative stress, which left unmanaged, can lead to burnout. The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it, which opens the door for burnout.


The World Health Organization has described burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Here, we’ll explore these symptoms of burnout, as well as three strategies for addressing it.

1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

Sure, we all feel tired sometimes, or even exhausted after a particularly tough shift, but persistent physical and emotional fatigue are typically the first signs of burnout. Left untreated, this physical and psychological state of exhaustion can have serious consequences on your physical and mental health, as well as your career.

Some people may want to sleep all the time to cope, but others may suffer from insomnia. Poor sleep habits aren’t good for anyone, but the resulting loss of focus, concentration and attention can be especially dangerous in EMS.

Other symptoms that can zap your energy may seem unrelated. Some people become more prone to allergies and infections due to the toll chronic stress has taken on their immune system. Additionally, many people suffer loss of appetite and weight loss. Anxiety is also a common component of burnout, with nagging feelings of tension, worry and edginess. All of these issues can add to the fatigue of burnout.

2. Increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job

Prolonged stress and frustration in the workplace often trigger feelings of dissatisfaction, irritability, and the feeling that your efforts aren’t being rewarded or recognized. In addition to physical and emotional exhaustion, burnout is often characterized by feelings of cynicism and detachment – first at work, but left unchecked, these feelings can easily permeate your entire outlook on life.

People experiencing burnout often isolate themselves to avoid interactions with coworkers and family. They begin to detach emotionally and physically from their job and their responsibilities and tell themselves it doesn’t matter anyway, because nobody is paying attention. This often results in declining job performance.

3. Reduced professional efficacy

Burnout can create a self-defeating cycle where a person feels frustrated and ineffective and becomes less likely to take initiative. This often leads to decreased productivity, declining performance and a general sense of futility. Individuals suffering from burnout are often disappointed in themselves as well as others and can be quick to snap at people and overreact to minor things. This irritability can damage professional and personal relationships, as well as overall workplace morale.


We need to recognize and identify the impact stress can have on our lives and how easily burnout can occur. Making efforts to recognize and respond to stress can greatly reduce your risk for burnout and depression. It also helps to take good care of yourself with proper nutrition, sleep, exercise and healthy social interactions. Here are three strategies for reducing stress and keeping burnout at bay:

1. Recognize your triggers

The first tip to managing stress is to recognize your personal stressors. Workplace issues like equipment malfunction, lack of feedback or recognition, hostile patients or long wait times at hospitals can be particular stressors for EMS providers. Personal stressors can include things like health worries, financial problems or family conflicts, as well as major life changes like divorce or a death of a loved one.

The worst thing you can do is ignore these stressors. Take a moment to identify what’s bothering you and think of possible solutions. Even if you can’t resolve every problem, any positive change will result in a happier, healthier you.

2. Shift your focus and take time to recharge

While it’s wonderful to have passion for your work, it’s important to have a life outside your job. That’s where you recharge your mental and emotional batteries. It’s also important to know how to change your focus in the moment so you don’t dwell on things that bother you. There are a number of things you can do immediately after a stressful moment to help combat your stress response:

  • Take a short walk, a bathroom break or get a glass of water.
  • Deep breathing.
  • Stretching/yoga.

You can also develop habits to prevent and cope with stress on a regular basis. A key strategy here is to build and maintain a life apart from your job. Make plans to do things you enjoy and spend time with people who make you feel happy and supported. These activities can include:

  • Listening to your favorite music, reading a good book or watching a funny movie.
  • Participating in a sport or engaging in a favorite hobby.
  • Talking to a trusted friend or relative.
  • Taking a nap, bath or shower.
  • Spending time with like-minded people (colleagues, peer support groups, associations, union members).

A good way to test whether you are truly burned out or just extra tired is to take a stress-free weekend. This means completely unplugging from work, emails, texts and anything else that stresses you out. Truly give yourself a couple of days to sleep in, relax and do what you enjoy (this can include doing nothing). If you get stressed thinking about work when you have to go back the next morning or you wake up dreading your day, you are more likely to be suffering from burnout.

3. Know your limitations and when to ask for help

When nothing seems to help and nothing is relieving your stress, seek help. When stress gets out of control and you find yourself with nothing left to give, it’s time to talk with a professional. If you notice persistent changes in your weight, sleep, appetite or mood, that’s also the time to seek professional care. Most importantly, seek treatment early – don’t let burnout or depression go untreated and unmanaged.

The first step is to see a physician to rule out physical problems. If your doctor recommends counseling or psychotherapy, there are a number of ways to find a mental health provider:

  • Ask trusted family members and friends for a recommendation.
  • Ask your physician or another health professional for a referral.
  • Check with your insurance plan provider list or employee assistance program for a list of providers.
  • Search online for provides in your area.

It can be hard for some people to make the first call for an appointment. Use these questions to help guide you:

  • Are you accepting new patients?
  • What are your areas of expertise?
  • Do you work with first responders?
  • Do you accept my insurance?
  • What are your fees and payment options?
  • What are your policies concerning things like missed appointments?

Additional resources:

Remember – seeking professional help is NOT a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s an investment in yourself, your health and your career.


The telltale sign of burnout is a diminished ability to engage in your work, your relationships or other activities as you normally would. Because depression may be difficult to recognize, a physical and mental health check-up are usually the best first step. Whether you or someone you know seems to be struggling with stress, burnout or depression, help is available.

Burnout is not a hopeless cause. Take steps to counteract the daily stressors in your life and reach out for help when you feel overwhelmed. Combating burnout is key to a longer and healthier life, both physically and mentally. You and the important people around you will benefit from it.

For more information on mental health and wellness, visit Bound Tree University.

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